The fascinating performances given at the Spectrum on Saturday night by a pair of English rock bands — Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit — suggests just how vast a range of styles rock-and-roll can accommodate.
As the opening act, Lowe thumped through songs from all five of his albums, managing to combine a ferocious pace and energy with a certain breezy casualness. He made terrific music seem tossed off, a matter of whim and mood. This is one of the most pleasing paradoxes in rock-and-roll, one that many performers strive to effect but very few attain.
Costello, on the other hand, gave a forceful, magisterial performance. On the road to promote what is arguably his weakest album ever — Goodbye Cruel World (Columbia) — Costello breathed life into many of his new record's stillborn songs, and performed lively, humorous, passionate renditions of some of his finest earlier compositions. From the frenetic "Mystery Dance" to the jazzy "Shabby Doll" to the caustic, politically minded "Shipbuilding," his subtle, witty delivery demonstrated just how masterful a concert performer he has become.
When they emerged in the late 1970s, both Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe were considered "new wave" rockers. At that point, new wave was understood to mean a refinement of punk rock that retained punk's rancor while adding such niceties as attractive melodies and choruses you could sing in front of your parents without getting your mouth washed out with soap. Very quickly, however, it became apparent that Costello and Lowe weren't part of any movement or trend; they were performers with their own quirky, original interpretations of rock history.
Lowe produced Costello's first five albums, emphasizing, as is his wont, the light, "pop" side of the Costello music (Lowe's own first album, in 1978, was titled Pure Pop for Now People). But right from the start, the two men's styles diverged. Costello wrote complex melodies that fused soul music, rock, reggae and even a bit of bebop; his lyrics were inscrutable little parables about rancid romance filled with striking images, and Costello sang them in a hoarse voice with Frank Sinatra phrasing. He acted surly onstage; denounced the music industry, the press and most of his fellow artists; said in a famous quote that his songs were inspired by "revenge and guilt." In short, he immediately established himself as the most intriguing singer-songwriter since Bob Dylan.
Costello is much more prolific than Lowe; he has released 10 albums in seven years. The best of them, 1980's Get Happy!!, contained 18 songs alone. On Saturday night, Costello performed only "King Horse" from Get Happy!!, but he made many other adventurous choices. He took the rather sappy "Clubland," for example, and inserted a harsh, choppy guitar solo into its center; the result was to give the song a great deal more bite and emotion than it has in its recorded version. He sang renditions of two songs from Goodbye Cruel World, "Worthless Thing" and "The Deportees Club," that were much tougher and more terse than they sound on the album.
It helps, too, that in concert it's hard to hear the lyrics, since for the past couple of years — since 1982's Imperial Bedroom, approximately — Costello's lyrics have become prolix jumbles, thick gobs of twisted cliches and ostentatious allusions to literature and other rock songs, including his own.
Costello's show was a generous, affable one. His encores included his one bona fide American hit, "Every Day I Write the Book," and his new would-be one, "The Only Flame in Town." And, early on in the performance, he sang a surprising old rock hit: the Byrds' "So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star." For all the irony intended by that selection, there was no doubt that on Saturday night, Elvis Costello was a rock-and-roll star.